Morning, Night…Smallness Again: Robert Walser’s Tzimtzum Reflection

In a vignette dated May 1920, Kafka’s favorite writer, Robert Walser reflects on smallness by way of moods, one in the morning, the other in the evening, that return to smallness. I would like to argue that it can be read as a fascinating reflection on what Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) calls Tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a narrative or metaphor about how G-d created the universe; namely, by contracting Himself and making room – an open space -for humankind to dwell and receive His goodness and have a relationship with Him (for better or for worse, to du, you).

If one were to imitate G-d (imitatio dei) as many Medieval Theologians suggest is the way one becomes godly, one can say that, in terms of the Tzimtzum, the imitation of G-d suggests a backwards movement in which infinite space is created through G-d’s becoming small. In both senses, godliness can be said to be found in the infintesimal, or in becoming small. One becomes G-d, so to speak, by becoming large and small, simultaneously.

God is to be found in the endless movement of becoming small.

For this and other reasons, Franz Kafka really enjoyed the writing of Robert Walser. In reflections like the one on May 1920 we can see why. Walser situates a mystical reflection on smallness in prose. In a fashion that is deeply other oriented (Levinasian or Buberian), he reflects on you and your mood and your presence. The you can be thought of as a reference to G-d peeking (as the Song of Songs suggest) into our world.

Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors.

He compares this to how “you” are at night:

How different, though, at night – then tiring thoughts come to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind the clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you were firm and strong.

While you, during the day, are like a child and wild, at night one contracts.

In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Mourning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.

The day drives “you” ought into immensity – in lines of flight – the night “pulled you back into modest smallness again.” This is the double movement of tzimtzum, but what is amazing about this reflection is that Walser personalizes it. The last line suggest it is a process of expanding outward and returning to smallness as one is pulled back into modest smallness “again.”

I would argue that what Walser is capturing is the idea that the movement to “modest smallness,” again, is the movement of becoming godly which is given a figure that is deeply embodied in a physical and environmental state of being. Its spirituality is coupled with the day and the night. It is not simply metaphor; it is a personalization and materialization of smallness. However, in his reflection, this movement of smallness is built into existence.

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